Christine Stuart photo
Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington (Christine Stuart photo)

A bill prohibiting the inhumane treatment of elephants in Connecticut was raised Monday by the Environment Committee for the third consecutive year.

The bill proposes that any person using violence against an elephant performing in a circus or road show can be charged with a misdemeanor. This makes illegal the use of bullhooks and other devices to beat, poke, or prod elephants.

Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington—the bill’s main proponent—is optimistic that the third time’s the charm when it comes to getting the legislation passed.

Holding a stuffed elephant from her son, Lex, in the atrium of the Legislative Office Building, Urban said momentum to prohibit the use of inhumane devices on elephants is growing as the eight-year lawsuit against Feld Entertainment—the parent company of Ringling Bros.—is finally past the discovery phase.

Feld Entertainment is being sued by animal rights activists who are claiming the company violates the U.S. Endangered Species Act in its treatment of elephants.

“They said they need to control the elephants because they are big and dangerous,” Urban said. “And yet they put children on them for rides.” Urban described that incongruity as a huge disconnect. She also explained that the elephants are tethered on chains for hours at a time, but would roam up to 25 miles a day in the wild.

Beating the elephants with the bullhook leaves welts all over their bodies, causing them to bleed while they are in the circus ring, Urban said.

“We’re asking children to grow up in an increasingly violent world,” Urban said, adding that instead of using bullhooks, circus personnel should find other methods to control the animals and steer away from weapons or devices that leave the animals bleeding in the ring.

According to written testimony submitted by Dr. Ellen Wiedner, director of veterinary services for Feld Entertainment, tethering elephants has been proven to be a humane management technique by the U.S. Department of Agriculture under the Animal Welfare Act.

“This legislation’s limitation on the use of tethers would actually be detrimental to good elephant care. All animals, including elephants, need to be acclimated to restraints,” Wiedner stated. “It is unreasonable to expect any animal to submit to a form of restraint without regular prior experience or positive reinforcement.”

“The guide works primarily as an extension of the trainer’s arm in conjunction with a voice command,” Wiedner said.“The guide is a standard tool of animal handling, no different than a dog leash or a bit and bridle for a horse.”

Mike McClure, general curator and elephant manager at the Maryland Zoo, spends much of his time with elephants. He has slept in barns with the animals and helped them bathe. He said that using tools and devices to keep elephants calm is relevant to the successful management of the animals.                                                       

McClure explained that the devices are used as teaching tools. On one occasion, McClure was giving an elephant a bath when a flock of geese flew overhead. The elephant became uncontrollable so he said he tapped the animal with a device. She soon became calm, and when the second flock of geese came by and squawked at her, the elephant was reserved, McClure said. The tool helped her learn, he said.

Deborah Robison, a circus elephant specialist with an international animal advocacy organization called In Defense of Elephants, testified on behalf of the bill explaining that even in “safe hands” the use of a bullhook is inhumane.

“The bullhook is a heavy rod with a sharp steel hook at the end,” Robinson explained. It is used to make elephants comply with commands, she said. Referring to the trial in Washington, Robinson said circus employees admitted to striking elephants repeatedly.

“If the elephant isn’t being hurt by a wielded bullhook at any given moment she is being threatened,” Robinson said. “Life under a constant threat of pain is simply inhumane and Connecticut should not allow it here.”